Google races to parry the rise of Facebook in India

Google CEO Sundar Pichai mapped out a new strategy for India. (Reuters)
Updated 05 September 2018
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Google races to parry the rise of Facebook in India

  • Facebook’s success has shaken Alphabet Inc’s Google, led by an Indian-born CEO, Sundar Pichai, who has made developing markets a priority
  • Google officials in India earlier this year were alarmed to learn that Facebook Inc. was likely to generate about $980 million in revenue in the country in 2018

DUBAI: Google retains only a slight lead over Facebook in the competition for digital ad dollars in the crucial India market, sources familiar with the figures say, even though the search giant has been in the country far longer and has avoided the controversies that have dogged its rival.
Facebook’s success has shaken Alphabet Inc’s Google, led by an Indian-born CEO, Sundar Pichai, who has made developing markets a priority.
Google officials in India earlier this year were alarmed to learn that Facebook Inc. was likely to generate about $980 million in revenue in the country in 2018, according to one of the sources. Google’s India revenues reached $1 billion only last year.
Google is now pushing back, attempting to lure customers with better ad-buying tools and more localized services.
The battle in India reflects an epic challenge for Google in developing markets around the world that are crucial to the company’s long-term growth — many consumers in those country’s are gravitating to Facebook and its siblings, Instagram and WhatsApp, at the expense of Google search and YouTube, and advertising dollars are quick to follow.
“Facebook is a far more user-friendly platform, even though they haven’t created features specifically for Indian advertisers,” said Vikas Chawla, who runs a small ad-buying agency in India.
Facebook ads, compared with those on Google search or YouTube, tend to transcend language barriers more easily because they rely more on visual elements, said Narayan Murthy Ivaturi, vice president at FreakOut, a Singapore-headquartered digital marketing firm. Pinpointing younger consumers and rural populations is easier with Facebook and its Instagram app, he and other ad buyers said.
And Facebook is succeeding in India, which has the fastest-growing digital ad market of any major economy, despite internal turmoil and political controversy. It has been without a country head for the last year, and has faced a series of incidents in which rumors circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp have prompted mob violence.
Facebook and Google between them took 68 percent of India’s digital ad market last year, according to advertising buyer Magna. Media agency GroupM estimates digital advertising spending will grow 30 percent in India this year.
Eight Indian ad buyers interviewed by Reuters were divided on whether Facebook would overtake Google in Indian ad revenue. That such a question would even be debated explains why Pichai, Google’s CEO, has pressed to flip the company’s approach to emerging markets.
“India is the most important market for the ‘Next Billion Users’ initiative,” Caesar Sengupta, the head of the effort, told Reuters last week.
For many years Google designed its services for early adopters of new technology, who tended to be in Silicon Valley, said Nelson Mattos, who oversaw Google’s Europe and Africa operations for several years.
“Over time, as you saw the growth of Facebook, the importance of WhatsApp and other tools in these new markets, and not the same adoption of Google, the company started to realize that maybe they had to change that approach,” Mattos said.
Shortly after taking the helm three years ago, Pichai mapped a new strategy for places such as India: More services tailored to locals; more marketing on radio, billboards and TV; more local staff and start-up investment.
Google’s India workforce has more than doubled since to 4,000 employees, about eight times Facebook’s presence, according to a tally of LinkedIn profiles. Its products evolved too, becoming easier to use with low- data plans.
The efforts are bearing fruit. Indian users during the first half of this year spent more time on Google services than on Facebook services, according to estimates from audience measurement firm Comscore.


Abu Dhabi said to study restructuring options for $1.2bn Etihad-linked bonds

Updated 19 September 2018
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Abu Dhabi said to study restructuring options for $1.2bn Etihad-linked bonds

  • Bonds issued through SPV with other airlines
  • Etihad asks Abu Dhabi government for help

DUBAI: The government of Abu Dhabi is looking at proposals to restructure some $1.2 billion of troubled bonds that were issued by Abu Dhabi state-owned carrier Etihad Airways in partnership with other airlines, sources familiar with the matter said.
Etihad issued $700 million of bonds through a special purpose vehicle (SPV) called Equity Alliance Partners (EAP) in 2015, and $500 million in 2016. Proceeds of the paper went to Etihad and other airlines it partially owned at the time, including Alitalia and Air Berlin, which are now both insolvent.
The notes were seen as strengthening Etihad's partnerships with those airlines after it spent billions of dollars in acquisitions.
The EAP bonds have been trading at a significant discount for over a year, however, after Alitalia entered special administration and Air Berlin filed for bankruptcy.
Etihad has no legal responsibility to bail out the portion of the bonds which benefited the two European airlines as the notes have no cross-default provision.
But with over $500 million of the paper held by United Arab Emirates investors, it has asked the Abu Dhabi Department of Finance to find a way to reduce losses for investors and limit any damage to the reputation of the local debt market, sources familiar with the matter said.
The department is now working with a financial adviser to find restructuring solutions, said the sources. One option being discussed could involve adjusting the structure of the paper to obtain a better credit rating. Rating agency Fitch has been involved in some of the discussions, the sources said.
Etihad declined to comment while a spokesman for the Abu Dhabi Department of Finance did not respond to a request for comment. Fitch declined to comment.
Any type of restructuring would require bondholders’ approval.
Etihad agreed to cover Alitalia’s portion of the debt, equivalent to around $230 million, at maturity through an agreement between the airlines which was signed before Alitalia entered special administration. But Air Berlin’s portion, of roughly the same amount, has no such guarantee.
Any intervention by the Abu Dhabi government, which could materialise before the end of this year, might see Abu Dhabi inject around $200-300 million into the issuing vehicle, said the sources.
This amount would be applied towards a partial early redemption of the notes at a discount of around 15 percent to par value for note holders seeking an early exit, the sources said. That would imply a write-off of Air Berlin’s obligation under the structure, while Alitalia’s debt would be honoured.
Creditors unwilling to exit at a discount might swap their notes into new instruments with a higher credit rating. The notes could feature a credit enhancement in the form of a guarantee of the obligations of Air Serbia and Air Seychelles, which are part of the borrowing structure, the sources said.
The first tranche of the notes, due 2020, is rated CC by Fitch, while the second tranche due 2021 is rated C.
With an Abu Dhabi intervention, the notes would become investment grade because of the oil-rich emirate's strong credit profile, so any capital injection by the government could be partially offset by a reduction in interest payments.
Last month, the SPV said it received a bid of just over $4 million in cash for the debt obligations of Alitalia and Air Berlin across the two EAP bond tranches.
The bid included around $6 million that would become payable to the SPV in case of recovery of an equivalent amount from the obligations, and a payment of 60 percent of money recovered after a 35 percent recovery threshold was reached.
The bid had an expiry date of Aug. 31; the SPV asked the bidder to extend the deadline to give note holders time to review terms. Since then, the SPV has given no update on the bidding process.